The disappearance of the low post game from the NBA has been a source of much consternation in recent years. Basic math suggests three is greater than two, and hunting shots around the arc has replaced pounding the ball down low as a primary means of offense generation.
The reasons for the decline in traditional back-to-the-basket scoring involve rule changes, more sophisticated defenses and the evolving skill sets of players entering the NBA.
Per NBA play type data provided by Synergy Sports, post-ups are generating 0.85 points per play finished this season. Only those plays ending in isolations or used by the ball handler in a pick-and-roll have been less profitable per possession. And those other plays tend to at least operate out of the hands of a player with the requisite vision and skills to find teammates for more efficient shot types, not generally the case with big men — even the highly skilled big men. So the move away from the post is as much about remaining competitive as it is a matter of preference or taste.
There are still situations where a post up-heavy offense can gain an advantage. In particular, talented post scorers have found success early this season working against over-matched second units.
As rosters change to meet the demands of the pace-and-space era, the plodding big man has been one of the casualties. Top-level rim protectors like Roy Hibbert will probably always have a place in the NBA. The more pedestrian space-eater, in the rotation to grab a few boards and protect the paint with all six of their fouls while staying as far out of the way as possible on offense, might not. As a result, though most teams have one or even two capable post defenders, once second units come into the game, there are opportunities for the remaining traditional bigs to go to work against over-matched and undersized opposition.
The table below shows the relative success of some of the more common post-up scorers in the NBA who have taken at least 20 percent of their shots vs. “bench” units (as defined by fewer than three members of the opponent’s starting unit on the floor) compared with their shots against “starters” (lineups with four or five opponent starters on the floor):
Though still very early in the season, it is notable how many of these scoring bigs have had significantly more success against second units. Especially for players with possible defensive issues like David Lee or Enes Kanter, deploying them as No. 1 options with and against sub-heavy units appears to be paying off. Their weaknesses are mitigated to a degree by the relative lack of explosive scorers of which to take advantage, while they can pick apart a team’s third, fourth and fifth bigs — many of whom are simply converted wings.
Of course, for superstars like Andre Drummond or LaMarcus Aldridge, the other team’s coach might have something to say about attempts to arrange for mismatches, altering their own substitution patterns to prevent any advantage from lasting more than a few possessions. Still, winning the rotation matchup game has been a staple edge gained by the Spurs for years.
The notion of staggering lineups to allow top post scorers more time during the six minutes bridging the quarter breaks splitting each half might be opportunity for a few more coaches and players to see improved efficiency. The chart below is similar to the one above, though it shows three interior players with among the lowest proportion of their shots coming against opposing reserves:
Again, noting these numbers include very few attempts, Minnesota, Chicago and Washington could realize some gains by allowing Karl-Anthony Towns, Pau Gasol and Marcin Gortat more time in second-unit situations.
Interestingly, the more the NBA as a whole moves away from the post game, the more exploitable this tactic may prove to be. As fewer and fewer bench spots are occupied by credible post defenders, those remaining bigs with the ability to bury a smaller opponent under the hoop and score over them will continue to find easy pickings.